MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The NFL has been struggling with its image in the light of several players, who've been charged with domestic violence. And even before that scandal erupted the league was dealing with complaints from some women who are part of game day - cheerleaders. Cheerleaders for five teams have brought lawsuits against their respective teams and one suit against the NFL. Emily Green reports.
EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: The NFL is big business, bringing in billions of dollars annually. So it might be a surprise to find out that many of the cheerleaders, who champion the teams, are less than minimum wage.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This season, your 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders.
GREEN: Current and former cheerleaders from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders are suing their respective teams. And 26-year-old Caitlin Yates, a five year veteran of the Raiders' cheerleading squad, is also suing the NFL itself.
CAITLIN YATES: When I first made the team I would have done anything just to be there. I would have signed anything, I wanted to be there more than anything else in the world.
GREEN: The cheerleaders made roughly $5 an hour, paid out in one lump sum at the end of the season. And Yates says the working conditions were just as bad.
YATES: We go to appearances and we don't have proper security provided for as. Often times we'd go to appearances and we would end up changing in a public restroom.
GREEN: Earlier this month the Raiders agreed to settle the lawsuit against it for $1.5 million. As part of the deal the cheerleaders' pay will increase to $9-an-hour - California's minimum wage. Yates stands to profit from that settlement, but she is pressing forward with her lawsuit against the NFL itself. Her attorney, Clinton Woods, says the cheerleaders' employment contracts must be filed with the NFL and that they're subject to discipline from the league.
CLINTON WOODS: It is a problem that is league wide. This is a pattern and practice of the NFL and its member clubs to take advantage of female athletes.
N. JEREMI DURU: It's important to keep in mind the NFL is an umbrella organization over the 32 individual clubs - which are 32 individual businesses.
GREEN: N. Jeremi Duru is a professor of sports law at American University. He says even if the NFL isn't legally responsible, it does have soft power.
DURU: The Commissioner can send a letter saying, that we think that everybody affiliated with your club, in whatever capacity should be receiving at least the minimum way.
GREEN: The NFL didn't respond to an interview request for this story. In court papers it has argued that it doesn't have to observe state labor laws. Attorney Dennis Vacco represents a company that manages the cheerleading team for the Buffalo Bills, one of the clubs facing a lawsuit. Vacco contests cheerleaders' claims that they're forced to work hundreds of hours for free.
DENNIS VACCO: My position is that they did receive compensation, so what was the gym membership worth? What was the tanning and the clothing allowances that they receive - what were they worth?
GREEN: Vacco's client suspended the Buffalo Bills cheerleading team two days after the lawsuit was filed. Despite the odds Oakland Raiders cheerleader Caitlin Yates, who is suing the NFL, says now is the time for change.
YATES: Up until now our coaches - they've honestly really bullied us into thinking, you're just so lucky to be here, a million girls would kill to have your spot. But there's also a lot of other professions out there that a million girls would kill to have that spot and they get paid very well for it.
GREEN: The haste with which the Raiders settled the lawsuit against it may spur other teams to increase their cheerleaders pay. It might be the prudent option for a league under public scrutiny for how it treats women, off the field and on. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.